Today President Bush signed legislation extending for 25 years the Voting Rights Act, the historic 1965 law which opened polls to millions of disenfranchised Americans by outlawing discriminatory voting practices in the South.
This is the first news I’m smacked with on the radio as I drove into work today. It disturbs me and I’m trying to figure out why I am so bothered.
I think I am annoyed by how reporters described the fanfare and celebration on the White House lawn as this bill was being signed. What the heck are they so happy about? I don’t understand, and am quite frankly pissed off when the privileged in this country do things to correct heinous, egregious wrongs in our history and celebrate as if they’ve had this great idea to do someone a freaking favor. This was not a favor. Every state in the union had granted universal suffrage by 1920!! Why the hell did it take an Act in 1965 to make voting rights practices fair? And why are they still unfair in many jurisdictions? (Shall I call your attention to the little voting registration mishaps in Florida that led to dufus, bill signing, gangster-pig W’s very own election? How soon we forget!) Check this out:
History of American Suffrage
15th Amendment (1870): all races may vote
19th Amendment (1920): all sexes may vote
23rd Amendment (1961): residents of the District of Columbia can vote for President but not for congress
24th Amendment (1964): Made poll tax illegal
26th Amendment (1971): Reduced voting age from 21 to 18
Now, I’m not usually one to engage in political banter because I’m just too fickle. I’m registered independent because there are elements of each party line that matter to me and somehow I don’t want to feel obligated to one party or another (and yes, I know I may register with a party and still vote for whoever I want, and that it wouldn’t hurt since I’m cut out of the primaries right now anyway. Thanks.) But I’m making an exception for this one. I had to say something because I’m annoyed.
Privilege is an uncomfortable topic. But it is a fact of life. Period. It’s not an American reality, a western reality, or a human reality for that matter, it’s a fact of life…all life, even in the animal kingdom. The difference with humans is that we have choices about what we do with our privilege. I believe (and many would disagree) that we all have at least one form of privilege. I can think of several for me: I’m heterosexual, college educated, bilingual, American, middle class. Of course, these only matter in certain contexts and in contrast to others with less privilege, but it’s privilege nonetheless. For example, as middle class I am only more privileged than someone of a lower class. Being American only comes with privilege in contexts that value American citizenship (inside and outside of this country). But, certainly there is some privilege ascribed even to me, a Black, overweight, woman in a white man’s world.
I was sitting in a meeting yesterday of representatives from several governmental agencies and NGO’s who either receive or administer funds for anti-violence against women work. There was one “big wig” from the governor’s office there who kept answering his cell phone, talking loud, walking out of the meeting, etc. Because he could. He was the man. He was in a room full of mostly white women, a handful of minority women and one black man. A black woman with a question about making sure those serving the interests of underserved populations were brought to the table as major funding decisions were being made was blown off by this man with, “yeah, we’ll get to that. We’ll bring them in later.” He completely dismissed her and her point that later won’t do because that is exactly what keeps these populations marginalized. He blew her off and called for the meeting to move on, and damnit if they didn’t do just that. And HE WASN’T EVEN RUNNING THE MEETING!! I was furious.
We all have choices to make to be responsible (or not) with our privilege. It’s a difficult choice to dis avail oneself of privilege. I don’t know if I can recall at the moment one instance where I’ve done it myself. But it seems to me like those with the most privilege have abundant opportunities to choose to lay it down, and don’t. I catch a lot of flack for the statement I’m about to make, but I really believe it to be true: the only reason blacks in this country have the rights we do is because privileged whites took up our cause and said enough is enough. We didn’t take our freedom, it was given to us. This does not in anyway diminish the work of freedom fighters and civil rights activist. They were absolutely (and continue to be) essential to creating consciousness in the society. But the Voting rights Act of 1965 didn’t become law until the privileged decided to give up lily white American suffrage. It’s just the truth.
Now why are they celebrating that? I think the signing of the bill should have been akin to Sorry Day.
For a good taste of white male privilege in a non-American context, watch Rabbit Proof Fence.